I get paid in cash each day, and on my infrequent trips to the bank I'm usually carrying a fairly thick stack of cash. On my first visit to a new bank, I sorted all the bills in order of increasing value and bank-faced them, partially to help the teller and partially because I'm anal-retentive like that.
The teller grabbed my cash without so much as a glance and threw it in a counting machine. In about 1.2 seconds, the machine calculated my cash deposit and rendered my organizing completely useless. What I should have been doing with that time was filling out a deposit slip, which I had never used before. Not for lack of effort, I had become an annoying customer rather than a helpful one.
The same thing happens nearly every day with my guests.
Some people, god bless them, are really eager to help. I appreciate the intent, but I'm here to serve you, so don't strain yourself. In fact, if you're an overly ambitious diner, you can often create a lot of awkward situations, such as when I'm reaching over your left shoulder to pick up your water glass for a refill and you're trying to hand it to me over your right shoulder. Relax, I'll handle the water-filling operations.
There is a wrong way and a right way to help your server. You're certainly not obligated to do anything other than sit, eat, drink and occasionally speak, but if you're insistent on being a small part of the waitstaff, here are some pointers.
Helpful: Passing plates or water glasses. If it prevents me from having to awkwardly lean across someone, by all means, hand me your empty plate or glass that needs topping off. At long tables or in tightly packed restaurants, your participation might be necessary. One request: If you are passing a plate, make sure the silverware is not hanging over the edge so a fork covered in potatoes doesn't land in grandma's perm.
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Not Helpful: Stacking plates. I have a system for clearing plates and it doesn't involve slowly carrying a clunky, awkward stack of plates to the dish pit. Many times, the poorly constructed plate tower will launch silverware and bread plates out the side as I leave the table. And this poorly conceived method leaves partially eaten food from one plate smashed on the bottom of another, so when I unload them at the dish pit I get that food on my hands -- which is not exactly sanitary. I've also worked at restaurants where I'm only allowed to carry plates a certain way, so I have to deconstruct the dish stack, increasing the likelihood that I will smear food on my sleeve. I appreciate the effort, but please, leave this to the professionals.
Helpful: Gesturing for the check. I don't want this signal to become a gateway drug to more obnoxious hand movements. Snapping fingers, waving money and the "come here" finger motion are still excessively annoying and condescending. But a simple check-mark in the air or the motion of writing on a pad are universally understood. This is especially useful if you are in a hurry or if you need the check before you are done with entrees or dessert, because I will always wait until you are done eating before offering the check. But remember, hand gestures are like alcohol -- use them responsibly and in moderation.
Not Helpful: Placing your napkin on your plate. If you really can't stand to keep your napkin in your lap until you're ready to leave, just place it on the table. A busser, who isn't serving food and drink, should pick it up. Napkins also throw a wrench in my plate-stacking system and often fall on the floor as I'm heading to the dish pit -- not to to mention they have likely touched your food and mouth, so I'd rather not handle them. Also not helpful: spitting food you don't like into your napkin and asking me to dispose of it. You're disgusting and I'm not a moving trash can. Helpful: Placing your knife and fork at five o'clock. If you think of the plate as a clock, place your knife and fork parallel to each other at five o'clock if you're finished with your meal. This is the international hospitality industry signal that a guest is ready to have his or her plate cleared and a good server will recognize it. In case you were wondering, the international sign that you don't like your server is to spell out "Fuck you" with un-eaten peas.
Not Helpful: Cleaning up a spilled beverage with your napkin. That thin cloth napkin is simply not going to absorb a glass of water, but if you try to use it to clean up, I will have to bring you a new one -- or multiples if others at the table try to help. It's just a waste of time and linen. Ask a staff member to come by with a towel, which will actually make a difference. And if you've just spilled some $100 a glass wine you might want to employ the zamboni.